How Meditation Can Help Ease Both Physical & Mental Pain, According To Science

by Georgina Berbari

Imagine yourself as an outside bystander to your own body. Notice the emotions, thoughts, and physical feelings that come up within you, without actually reacting to them on impulse. Meditation allows you to do just that, as the ancient practice helps you observe your thoughts and sensations, all without judgment. This is the true power of the practice, and over time, meditation can help relieve pain in your life, both physical and mental, by transforming the way you organize and react to your thoughts and feelings.

Have you ever had an itch that demanded your attention because it was just dying to be scratched? You probably scratched it with your fingernails, on impulse, so it went away. But, if you had simply noticed that the sensation was there, and allowed yourself to sit with it, the itch most likely would have faded as the moments passed. This is a small, everyday example of how meditation can teach you to sit with pain, and not let it consume you.

Obviously, scratching an itch probably isn't going to do you any harm in the long run. The idea here is to think of the itch as a metaphor for greater mental and physical pain that you can cope with simply by using the power of your mind (and, of course, on top of any necessary medical treatments your doctor may prescribe to you).

Meditation allows you to sit with your body, let uncomfortable sensations wash over you like waves, and then watch them drift away, letting them go and releasing the control that they have over you.

According to Psychology Today, meditation can help you overcome what's called primary and secondary pain. Primary pain refers to actual, uncomfortable, bodily sensations that come from an illness, an injury, or even damage to your internal organs or nervous system. Secondary pain, on the other hand, is your mind's reaction to primary pain, and it's what can lead to more long-term forms of distress, such as chronic anxiety.

Robert Bonakdar, M.D., director of pain management at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in San Diego, told that it's important to face your pain and fully acknowledge its presence within you, rather than run from it. He explained,

Pain patients want to run away from it, but mindfulness allows patients to go back into this dark hole, coming to terms with the pain, and addressing and controlling it.

Mindfulness and meditation might be very uncomfortable at first for people dealing with a lot of physical and mental pain, sheerly because it forces you to address your pain in a very straightforward way.

However, with practice, you can learn how to control and cope with your distress. According to Cleveland Clinic, sitting and meditating for a few minutes each day can ease physical pain by training your mind to shift your focus when you need to — to something other than the uncomfortable physical sensation you're experiencing. Lifestyle medicine expert Jane Ehrman, MEd, explained how this works in an interview with the health clinic:

When your focus is on the pain, obviously that increases the pain. For people who meditate, their muscle tension and heart rate drops, their respiration slows and breaths gets deeper. All those things have impact on the pain.

A 2016 study done by researchers from the Group Health Cooperative in Seattle and the University of Washington in Seattle really drives this point home even more. The researchers assessed the effectiveness of meditation on pain management in people who struggled with chronic back pain. One group of people received only conventional medical treatments, and the other group received the same treatments, but they added mindfulness and meditation practices into their healing therapy, as well. The results showed that the group who meditated showed long-term and lasting improvements in their chronic lower back pain, while the other group's pain returned after six months.

Meditation doesn't just do wonders for persistent physical pain. Science says it also has the power to help manage mental and emotional pain, as well.

Sitting in silence and observing your own thoughts for just a few minutes during your day can literally change the way your brain works, as well as the way you respond to stressful situations. For example, Massachusetts-based researcher and neuroscientist Sara Lazar conducted a study in which people who'd never meditated before participated in a "mindfulness-based stress reduction program," The Washington Post reports, for a total of eight weeks. Brain scans at the end of the study revealed that the participants were able to significantly increase their ability to deal with mentally uncomfortable, stressful situations in healthy ways, as reflected by specific changes in their brain activity.

While meditation certainly isn't a cure-all for any serious or painful conditions, it's an undeniably powerful tool that can definitely supplement other medical treatments when dealing with physical or mental pain. It's something you can easily try out yourself at home, and if you're curious about how it might be able to help you manage your own chronic pain, it never hurts to talk to your doctor to learn more about it.